OF the millions of stories each day in New York City, the saga of Stuyvesant High School has to be one of the best and brightest. This unique educational plant has been turning out top-quality students for over 80 years. It stresses math and the sciences but also caters to would-be poets and doctors, future lawyers and business leaders.
Stuyvesant is a public high school. But it is one of only three in New York City where students must qualify by examination. And the competition is tough: Only 800 students are admitted every fall out of the nearly 12,000 who take the test. The student body is 2,700.
Those admitted travel by bus, train, and Staten Island Ferry -- often for up to two hours -- to attend. They come from all five New York boroughs and represent a broad range of socioeconomic backgrounds. They are white, black, brown, and yellow. They are almost equally divided by sex. They are, in fact, the New York melting pot -- but one in which motivation, drive, and achievement have bubbled to the top.
Excellence is the mark of Stuyvesant today -- as it has been for decades. This secondary school has been tagged by a presidential commission on quality in learning as one of the best in the nation. Its students perennially cop a lion's share of Westinghouse science awards and National Merit Scholarships.
Principal Abraham Baumel says Stuyvesant is unlike any other school he has known. He points to 17 advanced-placement calculus classes as indicative of students' thirst for academic excellence. But Mr. Baumel stresses that this intellectual curiosity is not limited to the physical sciences but extends to the humanities, law, literature, and fine arts. For example, the list of English electives reads like a college-level curriculum: ``The Bible as Literature''; ``Elizabethan Drama''; ``The Gothic Tradition''; and ``Language, Mind, and Artificial Intelligence.'' Talent not limited to academics
Stuyvesant students tend to excel in sports and other extracurricular pursuits as well as academics. ``Giftedness is not limited to just one area,'' principal Baumel explains. He's apparently right.
Many students, chatting with a reporter in the hallway between classes, can't resist boasting about football and chess trophies. And tacked to a bulletin board outside an administrative office is a newspaper clipping with the headline ``The best boy fencer in the city is a girl.'' This alludes to the 15-year-old Oriental coed at Stuyvesant who took first place in the citywide boys' fencing competition.
Girls are relatively new to Stuyvesant. It wasn't until the early 1970s that this traditional all-boys school opened its doors to girls. The school was prodded by a lawsuit championed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Now women make up half the student population. School officials say they hold their own academically with their male counterparts. But some students seem to feel that the girls are superior in English and the humanities.
English department chairman William Ince -- a 20-year faculty veteran -- says sex integration of Stuyvesant has definitely enhanced his classes. ``They [the girls] add a certain kind of softness,'' he explains. ``And they tend to do their homework,'' he says with a wink. Physical environment still seedy
Stuyvesant students, like their predecessors for decades, complain about a dilapidated building. Paint peels from the walls. Classrooms lack modern style. The school itself is a dingy building cramped between brownstones on New York's Lower East Side. A posh Gramercy Park neighborhood is just a few blocks to the west. But to the south and east of the school is what students call the ``ABCs''-- seedy, alphabetically named streets with slum dwellings, a high incidence of crime, and a thriving drug trade.
How does this affect the high school? ``Students who want [drugs] get them,'' says senior David Gluck. ``But the kids here are probably smart enough not to buy drugs in the park.''
David, who is headed for Dartmouth to study liberal arts, is a second-generation student at Stuyvesant. His father, now a college professor, graduated in 1948. His mother attended the arch-rival Bronx High School of Science -- also a school where admission is only gained through an entrance examination.
David is happy with his Stuyvesant education. But he would like to see a specially chosen and higher-salaried faculty to match the elite student group. Now teachers are chosen for posts here in the same way they are recruited for other New York schools. As might be expected, however, many good teachers tend to set their caps for Stuyvesant.
Sharon Jackson, who is also graduating, expects to attend the University of Pennsylvania next fall to major in aeronautical engineering. She would like to see Stuyvesant's science laboratories refurbished. Further, she is concerned that students are subjected to too much red tape in planning their programs. But like David Gluck, she is glad she came here.
Pat Lacho has been appointed to West Point. He is interested in the humanities, especially psychology. Pat is happy he'll be lifting the load of tuition from his family, since there are no academic costs at the military academy. His father is a retired police officer. Pat has also lettered as a varsity football player. He says sports are a good outlet at a school where there is such strong stress on getting good grades. ``Everyone should have a right to go to a school like this one,'' says this Stuyvesant senior from Queens.
A 1950 graduate of Stuyvesant High School, I walked through its portals recently for the first time in 35 years. The surroundings were strangely familiar -- the dreary stone building, the musty smell, creaky staircases, and traditional-style classrooms. Other things are still the same, too. As in yesteryear, Stuyvesant remains a high-quality school, with highly motivated students, almost all college-bound. Entrance by citywide exam continues. Students still mill around on the outside steps -- cramming for quizzes, comparing assignments, and teasing one another. Some toss footballs in the street. Complaints about certain teachers and ``unjust'' rules continue from one generation to another.
But the differences are startling. There were no girls at Stuyvesant in the 1940s and '50s. We pursued our social lives elsewhere. Also, there were two sessions -- 8 a.m. to 12:30 for juniors and seniors, 1 p.m. to 5:30 for freshmen and sophomores -- affording little time for extracurricular activities. Today there is a single all-day school schedule. Computers were unheard of -- as was drug use. Our forefathers were European immigrants
We went to school in the post-World War II, pre-McCarthy years. The only US President most of us had lived under was Franklin D. Roosevelt. Liberals and Democrats constituted the majority in our ranks -- although many of us were fiercely loyal to New York's Republican Gov. Thomas E. Dewey (who, among other things, provided us with free apples every fall). Most of our fathers or grandfathers were European immigrants. Few of our relatives had gone to college. We talked about the ``Red'' scare, listened to reports of communist sympathizers on the radio. Only the most affluent of our families had television at the time.
We studied hard. But we went to baseball games and tossed the football in the park. Our hair was short. We wore white shirts to class, and usually ties. We sometimes rocked around the clock.
Our heroes were Gens. Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower. And, of course, Jolting Joe DiMaggio of the pre-George Steinbrenner pin-striped, ever-champion New York Yankees. We went to the Roxy or Capitol on Saturday mornings and took in Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey stage shows. Many of today's students are Asian immigrants
Today's Stuyvesant students seem better motivated, harder striving, and less political. There are strong conservative influences (apropos of the times) prodding them to business and professional careers. But many talk about First Amendment rights -- particularly as they pertain to students. Contemporary Stuyvesant students are more at home with computers than slide rules. The boys and girls take each other in stride. (They asked me what it was like going to an all-boys school.)
Orientals, the new immigrants, constitute one-third of the student body. They are, for the most part, reserved -- and remain in their own groups. But there is no outward evidence of racial stress.
Students talk about emotional ``stress.'' They are very upset over a teen suicide here late last year. Many are calling for better counseling for those with social problems.
Just as it was three decades ago, ``going to Stuyvesant'' is still a badge of distinction, especially among New Yorkers. The school itself is as indigenous to the Big Apple as the Empire State Building, the Fulton Fish Market, and the Staten Island Ferry. Some things never do change.